The Polley Mine tailings-pond disaster unfolding in British Columbia is being watched closely by those opposing the Pebble Mine proposal in neighboring Alaska’s Bristol Bay region.
In fact the firm that designed the tailings pond dam that burst on August 4, sending four billion gallons of mining waste tumbling into waterways awaiting the return of the salmon, also worked on plans for Pebble Mine.
“Knight Piesold Consulting, the same international firm that designed the tailings dam for Mount Polley, was engaged by Northern Dynasty Mines to design the tailing storage facility for the Pebble project,” reported The Cordova Times on August 6, quoting a 2006 report filed with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources by Northern Dynasty Mines Inc.
The Polley mine disaster is exactly the type of thing the opponents are afraid of, Native Alaska groups and others told The Cordova Times.
“We don’t want this to happen in Bristol Bay,” said Kim Williams, of Dillingham, director of Nunamta Alukestai, which means Caretakers of Our Land, a conservation group of Alaska Native tribes and corporations, to The Cordova Times. “With all the similarities between Pebble and the Mount Polley copper mine, we’re urging the EPA to take immediate action to finalize mine waste restrictions in Bristol Bay. Our hearts go out to those in British Columbia who live downstream from this devastating mine failure.”
Carol Ann Woody, a fisheries scientist at the Center for Science in Public Participation, spoke to the newspaper about damage to prime salmon runs, including, potentially, the Fraser River.
“It’s Bristol Bay’s worst nightmare,” Woody told The Cordova Times. “It’s exactly what we don’t want to have happen. It’s about Canada’s premium salmon system, and it’s occurring now when the run is just beginning.”
As noted by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Pebble dwarfs Polley.
“The Pebble project would be bigger—a lot bigger,” wrote Joel Reynolds, western director and senior attorney for the NRDC in Los Angeles, on Huffington Post. “While Imperial Metals has been mining about 20,000 tons per day at its Mount Polley mine, Northern Dynasty has anticipated about ten times that at Pebble, with a tailings pond many times larger in footprint and scale.”
Pebble Mine is being held at bay, for now. In July the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 10 issued a proposal to protect Bristol Bay’s salmon fisheries from large-scale mining. The plan in effect quelches the proposal for the world’s largest open-pit mine, although it does not prohibit Northern Dynasty Mines Inc. from applying for permits.
“Science has shown that development of this mine, which is backed by Northern Dynasty Minerals and the Pebble Limited Partnership, would be one of the largest open pit copper mines in the world and would threaten one of the world’s most productive salmon fisheries,” said the EPA in a statement on July 18. EPA Region 10 has been soliciting public comment on its proposal since July 21 and will do so through September 19, 2014, with public meetings scheduled in Alaska from August 12–15, the agency said.
Alaska Native tribes have intervened to support the EPA in a lawsuit filed against it by the Pebble Limited Partnership, the company overseeing the project. The United Tribes of Bristol Bay has joined the suit and created a Facebook page to get people to come to the hearings.
“Bristol Bay is an extraordinary ecosystem that supports an ancient fishing culture and economic powerhouse,” said Dennis McLerran, Regional Administrator for EPA Region 10, in the statement. “The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world’s last intact salmon ecosystems. Bristol Bay’s exceptional fisheries deserve exceptional protection. We are doing this now because we’ve heard from concerned tribes, the fishing industry, Alaskans and many others who have lived and worked for more than a decade under the uncertainty posed by this potentially destructive mine. Simply put, this is a uniquely large mine in a uniquely important place.”